• Niyaa People

Transforming Lives - an Interview with Shelter

Last time, Niyaa People's Social Housing Recruitment Manager Matthew Guest spoke to Tansy Crowley-Sweet from Castle Vale about what it's really like to work in Social Housing.

He's now taken the opportunity to speak to Amy Mullins-Downes, Service Manager at Shelter in Birmingham about how they have created exciting initiatives to aid the homeless and those in need back into work. Their programmes go against the status quo of traditional recruitment, but with impressive results and success stories.

MG: What is your current role and responsibilities and what is the overall purpose and vision of Shelter?

AMD: I am a Service Manager, based at Shelter Birmingham. I manage the Birmingham Changing Futures Lead Worker Peer Mentor Service, and the No Wrong Navigator Service. Both of these services are designed to work with individuals experiencing multiple and complex needs – homelessness, offending, mental health and substance use problems.

My service is genuinely co-produced with its users, we put the needs of our customer at the heart of what we do. We are champions of systems change and challenge services that are not inclusive of clients with multiple and complex needs. We guide and support services to be better set up, so that support is sustainable and better outcomes are achieved.

Shelter understands and promotes that home is more than bricks and mortar. It is somewhere where people want to feel safe and create a foundation on which they can build their lives. Obtaining, managing and keeping a home requires so much more than just paying rent or a mortgage. There are many curveballs that life throws that can threaten the security of home, and whilst we can prepare for lots of things – no one can really be prepared for everything. We work hard so that people get a choice as to where they go, and when they do get that much longed for key to a door, that it is a place that is safe and secure, which means they are more motivated to take care of themselves and seek they right support, wen needed, to do so.

MG: With responsibility for such a large and important remit, what methods of recruitment and retention do you have in place in order to provide consistent services?

AMD: We are very lucky to have a strong, motivated and diverse workforce. We knew, right from the outset, that if we were going to have genuinely co-produced services that clients would want to engage with, then we needed the right people in the right jobs.

The Lead Worker Peer Mentor Service takes a twofold approach; the Lead Workers have professional experience of multiple and complex needs and services. They have invaluable skills and knowledge that means that we can support very vulnerable individuals to navigate a complex maze of services. Secondly we employ paid Peer Mentors, who work in tandem with our Lead Workers. Our Peer Mentors have lived experience of complex needs. They have been there. They have a genuine empathy that means the very vulnerable client group we work with, who are all too mistrustful of services, can speak to a person who understand them, their language, their fears and their perceived barriers. This has increased engagement rates significantly and had a massive impact on our clients.

Our Lead Workers are encouraged to challenge from the front line, which means that they get to see the fruits of their labour and apply and share the expert knowledge they have and share it with their colleagues. I encourage self-celebration and feedback at every level – it is important that they see the difference that they make – not just to their clients but to local services. There is no other service like this one in Birmingham and they have become recognised experts in their field.

We are partnered with two other agencies, Birmingham Mind and Sifa Fireside which has resulted in specialist knowledge in different areas and the team work together using each other’s skill sets to get the best outcomes. Although the recruitment for Lead Workers follows a standard that is common in the industry, we have introduced an additional layer, whereby Service Users interview the candidates as well as the ‘professional’ management panel. The service users are able to ask those trickier questions and seek out answers that support the ethos of Changing Futures. Each panel is given equal weight and influence. We use a behaviour-based interview and application method. We want to see skills and behaviours that suit the ethos of the programme.

Shelter has an internal Training Brand that all staff have access to. It is a recognised training brand across the sector and one that id respected delivers quality and effective training in many areas. We encourage progression and development at all levels, this is crucial to keeping a motivated and retained staff force.

MG: What is the Peer Mentor programme?

AMD: Our Peer Mentor Programme is something that I am particularly proud of. Peer Mentors are employed for two years. In that time, we, work to develop and support them so that when they leave, they are confident and able to work elsewhere and can continue their own journey.

We have adapted our own internal processes so that we are a more inclusive employer, opening opportunities that were nor previously there, for example employing people with criminal histories and putting them in roles that are meaningful and not tokenistic. As previously stated, we ensure that the adverts for roles are sent to agencies where people who may want to apply may already be volunteering or in publications where they are most likely to be seen.

Changing Futures has a volunteer programme where they have created ‘Experts by Experience’ and this has in turn developed into a valuable resource of skills where several of our staff have come from. Our job adverts make it clear that a criminal record and not being IT literate will not be a barrier, we will take a paper-based application and provide support for the completion.

We have created an ‘induction to induction’. Many of our Peer Mentors have not worked in a professional environment before and if not handled correctly – this can be intimidating and a barrier to their confidence and success. We support and nurture Peer Mentors, giving them every opportunity to reach their potential and do work that they want to do. The model has been a huge success, and we have supported the NHS to build up a similar approach and continue to do so. As a result, they have created entry level positions in certain services, this systems change is huge. It means that there is now a chance for people who have worked hard to overcome their complex needs to gain valuable employment that leads to a career. I have worked incredibly hard to create a level playing field, where everybody gets the chance to be the best that they can be.

MG: What results/success stories have you seen for your staff?

AMD: This is a real example of success. After overcoming addiction, homelessness and offending, Az was seeking ways to maintain his recovery and was looking for volunteering responsibilities. In 2014, Az Azam became a Birmingham Changing Futures Expert by Experience. Using his own personal experiences, Az, with the other Experts, helped to develop and shape what was to become the Birmingham Changing Futures Lead Worker Peer Mentor Service, as well as feeding into the development of the other Changing Futures work streams.

In 2016, Az was successful in becoming a Grade 1 Peer Mentor in the Lead Worker Peer Mentor Team. He grew quickly in this role and showed not only a great understanding of the client need, but also of service delivery. He was always passionate about making real systems change so that the clients that use the service would stand a real chance of being able to succeed.

In August 2017, Az was successful in applying for a Lead Worker role. The development of the Peer Mentors is an area the programme has had particular success and Az was no exception. In his Lead Worker role, he was able to co-work with another Peer Mentors and carry a caseload of very complex clients. He took to the role well, and was able to guide the peer Mentor he was with and share knowledge and experience as part of the peer to peer learning.

When a Grade 5 Team Leader vacancy came up in March 2018, Az approached me and advised that he wanted to apply, not because he thought he could get the role, but because he wanted to start gaining experience at applying for roles at a management level and just wanted to see what an interview and application process was like. This is exactly what we encourage so that everybody gets the opportunity to gain experience with a view to eventually progressing as much as possible. However, Az’ application was good enough in itself to warrant a genuine offer of an interview. Subsequently, his interview was also good, he was the top scoring candidate and as such I was absolutely delighted to be able to offer him the role of a Team Leader for the Lead Worker Peer Mentor Service.

This model of co-production is a recognised one of quality and one that gets results for clients, but also for staff. It is the reason that the service has enjoyed the success that it has and has given hope and opportunity to so many that would otherwise have not engaged in any process or agency. It has demonstrated to individuals with entrenched complex needs that they can trust a little and gain a lot, because they are genuinely listened to and their message heard. A successful outcome is not a box ticked on a form, but what they say it is – whether it be talking to a doctor for the first time in ten years or carving themselves a respectable career in field that was previously closed to them.

MG: How has this programme impacted your service users?

AMD: The service is designed to reach out to clients who, historically do not engage well with any service. This means that when they do access our services it is more likely to be at crisis point. A breakdown of the needs of our clients looks like:

  • 98% of SUs faced Substance Misuse issues

  • 96% of SUs faced Mental Health issues

  • 84% faced offending issues

  • 76% had or have homelessness issues

By reaching out and building trust, and then working with the person to transfer that trust into statutory and third sector support providers, it means that support and care is more planned, created in agreement with the service user and therefore, more likely to be successful. The workers get there before crisis point, and helps the client to identify what they most need at that time and then work with them carefully to access what is needed before emergency intervention is needed.

Birmingham Changing Futures Together's 2018 Economic Impact Analysis (EIA), proves the transformative power of the Lead Worker Peer Mentor service.

“Aged 50, Sean was a repeat offender with 87 convictions. He was addicted to crack cocaine, heroin, NPS (legal highs) and shoplifting. About to leave prison, the Probation Service referred him to the No Wrong Door Network. He was met at the gates by a Lead Worker and Peer Mentor. Without them he would have gone straight to buy drugs and soon been back in prison” According to the EIA, the transformation of Sean’s life and others like him through their engagement with the service has delivered potential annual savings* to the City of over £730,000.

So, for example, visits to A&E have reduced by 50%, the number of hospital inpatient episodes have decreased by 67%. Arrests, police cautions and nights spent in police custody are down between 72 and 77%. This meant that arrests were down, convictions were down and crown court proceedings were down by a whopping 83%.Furthermore, engagement with drug and alcohol services increased by 109% following support from the service.

The Model clearly works and has changed the lived of the clients that we have supported for the better. They are enjoying the real possibility of a sustainable recovery and a life that is free from addiction, offending and homelessness and where their mental and physical health needs are being met.

MG: Recommendations/benefits of other organisations adopting the same policy/process?

AMD: The Model of Co-Production is one that has been around for some time now. It warms my heart that it is now becoming a Model that is recognised as one that works and is worth investing in. Co-production involves people who use services, the commissioners and communities in equal partnership; and which engages groups of people at the earliest stages of service design, development and evaluation.

Co-production recognises that people with ‘lived experience’ of a service area are often best placed to advise on what support and services will make a positive difference to their beneficiary’s lives. Done well, co-production helps to dig true and lasting foundations on which strong frameworks can be built, and to maintain a true person-centered perspective. However, genuine co-production is not just about having that expert give their opinion here or there, or on everything. It is about recognizing where that valuable insight will create the biggest and most positive impact for the business and its users.

Organisations who are working to adopt the same approach, must first create a culture that fosters a good ethos which commensurate the behavior and values needed to deliver the approach. There must be the right soil to grow respect for both lived and professional experience of an area and it is up to Managers to lead this approach and ensure that there is a culture where openness and honesty can prevail. There must be a genuine commitment that everyone is valued and respected and that the smallest of voices will be heard- only then will the approach be able to thrive.

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